When I heard that a production of West Side Story was being put on by DULOG, my interest was immediately piqued. The New York cynic in me instantly vocalized its doubt that the spirit of my home town, so woven into the fabric of this musical, could ever be grasped by anyone other than a New York native. How could the pulsing energy of this city, the intensity of its streets and its people, ever be successfully interpreted in Durham, England? However, I am happy to now report that my original misgivings about this production were proven wrong by what turned out to be, in general, a solid production with a wonderful cast.
West Side Story takes place on the West Side (duh) of New York, where two gangs are currently warring over territory. The stench of racism lies heavily in the air. At a high school dance, Riff, the head of the Jets, has decided to ask Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks, to a war council to decide upon a time and place for a rumble to settle the dispute once and for all. Sadly for everyone, Riff’s best friend and prominent Jet member, Tony, espies Bernardo’s younger sister, Maria, and the two fall in love on the spot. For some odd reason, this doesn’t sit well with anybody except the two enamored teenagers, and violence is sparked. Not to totally spoil it for everyone reading, but Bernardo and Kiff are both killed in the rumble. Plot twist: Tony is Bernardo’s killer, acting on revenge for his fallen brother. Maria forgives Tony and the two decide to run away, only for Tony to be shot dead by Chino, Maria’s scorned lover, as he runs into Maria’s arms.
Becca Collingwood, as the young, innocent Maria is entirely enchanting, an opinion that I’m absolutely positive would be seconded by anyone who saw this production. Collingwood’s voice soars over the theatre, clear as a bell and twice as beautiful. But her talent does not stop here. I had heard that Butler had decided to include the balletic duet between Maria and Tony, and although this is a risk to take (it could seem stupefyingly soporific) Collingwood made it one of the highlights of the show.
As astutely pointed out by Doug Gibbs, the show’s Tony, without this ballet, Maria’s forgiveness of Tony would seem entirely implausible. However, Becca Collingwood floated across the stage, so delightful that not a single person in the theatre was looking anywhere else. On top of this, Maria is a difficult character to make authentic, and yet Collingwood pulls this off with apparent ease. Although I doubted that I would feel any of the telltale prickling of tears when Tony’s death came rolling around, Collingwood dragged this emotion out of me with her heart-rending final speech as she threatens to turn the gun which killed her love on her community and, finally, herself. She was so beautifully heartbreaking that the entire audience was spellbound.
Unfortunately, this performance was not echoed in the portrayal of Tony, played Doug Gibbs. Although his voice was good, the character lacked spirit. The movement in Gibbs’s songs seemed contrived and awkward. I was puzzled by his accent, with a hint of Australia coming through, rather than a New York native. Of course, I must pause here to mention that I saw the play on opening night, and naturally, first night jitters may have kept the cast from settling completely into their character.
A few more bright lights of this production were Anita and Bernardo. Bernardo, played by an excellent Ben Starr, was the most believable portrayal of this character I have seen in a long time. He was a live wire, his energy emanating from the stage and undoubtedly inspiring his fellow cast-members. He was a plausible patriarch of the Sharks, silently exerting his authority over his peers and entrancing the audience in doing so.
Anita was well-played by Becky Grosvenor-Taylor. Although a few of her initial quips were lost due to microphone levels being somewhat off, her performance of ‘A Boy Like That’, one of the musical’s key pieces, was superbly done.
Grosvenor-Taylor managed to balance the angst and anger of the widowed Anita. In fact, the entire supporting cast did well in their roles. The Sharks were wonderful in their performance of ‘America’, and ‘Mambo!’, exuberant and fully island flavoured. If their accents more often than not strayed from the distinctive intonation of Puerto Rico, it is but a small complaint.
However, I was disappointed with the portrayal of the Jets boys, at least for the first half of this musical. They seemed like cartoon versions of gangsters; jutted out jaws and arms held out stiffly from their sides, as if their machismo had inflated their bodies like big, testosterone-filled balloons so they physically couldn’t hold their arms normally. Thankfully, the choreography picked up rapidly after this, coming to a peak of energy in the ‘Mambo!’ scene and hitting a wonderfully somber note during Maria and Tony’s balletic duet.
Regrettably, there were some problems with sound level, most notably in the scene of Tony’s death. When Chino, Maria’s spurned boyfriend and Bernardo’s best friend, fired his gun as Tony runs across the stage, the bang of the pistol was so loud that the audience practically jumped out of their skin and then started laughing self-consciously at themselves for their fright, utterly destroying the moment of Maria realizing that Tony had been shot. This was unfortunate, since it is such a poignant and important moment, so hopefully in the future, productions will think twice before setting the level of their sound effects to eardrum-blasting levels.
The costumes in this production sadly left much to be desired, especially for the girls. The 1950s provide such a wealth of opportunity for fashion, but the costume designers decided to settle upon the cheesy clichés. Understandably, budgeting will place a restraint on decisions like these, but the Jets girls were made to look like prom-night rejects while the Sharks girls, with a few exceptions, were made to look cheap and trashy. Their costumes looked more like something Jordan might don on her next man-trapping night out rather than what a Puerto Rican would have worn in the 1950s.
Happily, the set made up for the shortcomings in the costume department. With impressive brick buildings, and some really great dated advertisements for Coca Cola and Pepsodent toothpaste, the set helped build the feeling of the urban jungle that is New York. In addition to this, the orchestra and its conductor did composer Leonard Bernstein proud, making the music a real highlight of the show.
Despite a few shortcomings, this production was thoroughly entertaining and, in places, entirely exceptional. Emma Butler proved herself to be a talented director with an eye for both the aesthetic and cerebral aspects of this musical. I was impressed with the amount of dedication from the cast and the crew and the standard that DULOG holds itself to. The story of West Side Story is one that pervades our society today: racism and hatred are still very much alive, and this production did its part in showing how destructive those views are.